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a primer on cortisol stress

It's no secret that chronic stress [whether emotional or physical] has wide-ranging + negative impacts on health. In fact, stress has the ability to affect every area of our lives [physical, emotional, spiritual, social] and similarly, every area of our lives is able to induce stress. We are designed for short bursts of stress but it's the long stretches of unrelenting stress that begin to wear on our bodies from cell to soul. Here's how.

what happens when we are stressed?

When we encounter something emotionally or physically stressful [i.e a project deadline, loss of a family member, physical endangerment], our adrenal glands stimulate the secretion of cortisol - a hormone designed to do the following:

  1. sharpen senses + perceptions

  2. induce sweating [so our body is cool in the case of exertion]

  3. release hormones that make the blood “stickier” [so we will lose less blood if injured]

  4. stop digestion [blood is diverted from the gut to the arms and legs for running / fighting]

  5. increase blood flow to muscles [they become tense + ready for action]

  6. increase heart rate + blood pressure [preparing us for exertion]

  7. increase breath rate [to oxygenate the blood so we are ready to fight or flee]

  8. stimulate the release of glucose into the blood to increase blood sugar [so cells have energy at the ready]

  9. suppress reproductive hormones [to discourage new life coming into a stressful environment]

In the case of an acute [short-term] stressor, these reactions are good - our bodies are designed to adapt to + receive feedback from stress so we can face it more resiliently the next time it comes around!

is cortisol always bad?

No. Cortisol has many important functions in the body that are highly useful. In fact, our bodies secrete cortisol every morning to gently wake us up and prepare us to start the day. Cortisol also helps to regulate blood pressure, maintain the immune system and metabolism + quell inflammation. Without cortisol, we would not be our vibrant + energetic selves - it is, quite frankly, a critical life force hormone that is necessary to survive. Too much of a good thing is simply too much of a good thing; and when exposed to chronic stress over time cortisol becomes dys-regulated.

what are the effects of chronic stress?

Long-term elevated levels of cortisol [in the case of chronic stress] can lead to the following:

  1. stimulation of fat deposits → weight gain

  2. increased blood pressure → hypertension

  3. increased protein breakdown → loss of lean muscle mass

  4. demineralization of bone → weak bones

  5. suppression of the immune system → illness

  6. memory loss [hippocampus] → cognitive decline

  7. depression

  8. increased blood sugar → hyperglycemia

  9. decreased libido + fertility

how can I tap out of the chronic stress loop?

  1. Protect your daily check in / pause. Here's how: 3-5 times and just check in. Notice what’s happening around you, notice what you're feeling in your body allowing yourself to come back into your body, and maybe jot down something you’re grateful for. Want more? Breathe. Allowing your exhale to be longer than your inhale alone is going to slow down your nervous system grounding it in a space of calm. One pause could be in the morning and another in the evening. There’s 2 right there. 3-5 a day makes a world of difference on a deep biological level.

  2. Every time you are asked how you are doing this week I dare you to say “balanced” not busy. You might have to hear yourself say it before you actually feel it. And your response will not only surprise the person who asked you but you might just inspire them to pursue a balanced pause themselves. The more we practice saying we are busy, the more we step into that reality. Test out the alternative [even if it's just verbally at first!]

  3. Relish in the consistency of routine. Routine = freedom. Not only does a steady, reliable routine make our body feel safe + balanced, it cuts out the unnecessary stress of inconsistency. Consider which habits you can keep at the same time each and every day [i.e sleep / wake schedule, exercise, meals, etc] and stick to them as best as you can.

  4. And finally each and every day make a list [because we all love lists] of what does not have to happen today. Relish in the margins. And don’t commit just because you have time. Time is your most precious entity. Guard it with fierce commitment.

  5. Over in my online membership The Table, we are dedicating three full months to the recalibration of cortisol which translates to resilient energy, sound sleep, and a deep sense of grounded peace. I'll be sharing nuggets of wisdom over on instagram so be sure to follow along and join the waitlist for the next session dedicated to your superpowers: your sex hormones.



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